May All Our Deeds be for the Sake of Heaven

It is written, “The son of the Israelite woman went out – and he was the son of an Egyptian man – among the Children of Israel” (Vayikra 24:10). The Midrash states, “From where did he go out? Rabbi Levi replied: He went out of his world, as may be inferred from the text: ‘A champion went out’ [I Samuel 17:4]. Rabbi Berekiah said: He went out from the preceding section. He argued, ‘It is written, “You shall take fine four and bake twelve loaves” [Vayikra 24:5]. A king usually eats fresh bread. Does he eat stale?’ … Rabbi Chiya taught: He went out as a result of the section regarding ancestry. He came with the intention of pitching his tent among the camp of Dan, but they said to him: ‘What right do you have to pitch your tent in the camp of Dan?’ He replied, ‘I descend from the daughters of Dan.’ They told him, ‘It is written: “Each man by his standard, with ensigns according to the houses of their fathers” [Bamidbar 2:2] – their fathers, not their mothers.’ He appealed to Moshe’s court and lost his case, and so he rose and cursed G-d” (Vayikra Rabba 32:3). It is difficult to understand how he could scorn the showbread by saying that it was eaten cold. All Israel knew that it did not get cold as long as it had not been placed on the Shulchan, and that when the kohanim came to remove it, they found it as hot as when it had been placed there!

The Sages have said, “All who heard him placed their hands on his head. They placed their hands on his head and said to him, ‘Your blood is upon your own head. You brought this upon yourself’ ” (Torat Kohanim 19:2). In his book Degel HaMussar, Rabbeinu Gershon Liebman Zatzal asks: “Why did they tell the one who cursed, ‘You brought this upon yourself,’ since he belonged to the generation of the desert, the generation of knowledge? They had stood upon Mount Sinai at the lofty moment when the Torah was given, and they saw all the miracles that took place during the exodus from Egypt, during the war against Amalek, when the sea split, when Mount Sinai was completely in smoke, and so on. The dispute in which he found himself was somewhat of a dispute for the sake of Heaven, not just a dispute for material gain of some kind. He was not allowed to pitch his tent among his tribe, so what was he to do? In the end, he wanted to live with the Jewish people; he only desired good, so what does it mean that he brought this upon himself?”

Who Sees Angels?

To explain all this, let us begin by citing a teaching from our Sages in the Gemara: “What is the meaning of the text, ‘The lips of the kohen should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth, for he is an angel of the L-RD of hosts’ [Malachi 2:7]? If a Rav is like an angel of the L-RD of hosts, they should seek the law at his mouth. If not, they should not seek the law at his mouth” (Moed Katan 17a). This is difficult to understand. Do people see angels, such that they can tell the difference between one Rav and another? Can they say, “This one resembles an angel, but that one does not”? Can they say, “I will accept the Torah from this one, but not from that one”?

We may explain this according to a teaching of our Sages: “Israel is more precious to the Holy One, blessed be He, than the ministering angels, for Israel sing praises to Hashem every hour, whereas the ministering angels sing praises but once a day. Others say once a week, while others say once a month. Others say once a year, while others say once in seven years. Others say once in fifty years, while others say once in eternity” (Chullin 91b). It is also taught, “Each day ministering angels are created from the fiery stream, sing praises, and cease to be” (Chagigah 14a).

From here we learn that there are some ministering angels who only sing praises before G-d after seven or even after fifty years, at which point they are immediately consumed by a fiery stream. Although they know that they will disappear once they sing praises, they still sing before G-d and give their lives for a single song of praise, regardless of the fact that they will perish immediately afterwards.

This is the meaning of the teaching which states that a Rav must resemble an angel of G-d: Just as an angel has no consideration for its own life when it must bring satisfaction to its Creator, since it knows that it will perish once it sings a song of praise, likewise a Rav must devote himself entirely to words of Torah. And just as ministering angels await no reward for giving up their lives, a Rav must also await no reward, acting solely for the sake of Heaven.

We must not accept words of Torah from the mouth of a Rav who is not like an angel, however, for the Sages have said: “Do not make it [the Torah] a crown for self-aggrandizement, nor an ax with which to cut” (Pirkei Avoth 4:5). Whoever does not give his life for the Torah, it is a sign that he hopes for a reward; and whoever awaits a reward clearly proves that he is using the Torah as a crown for self-aggrandizement and an ax with which to cut. The Holy One, blessed be He, will remove such a person from the world.

An Example

The principle here is that whoever gives his life for the Torah must not await any reward or make the Torah into a means for personal gain. Instead, he must study solely for the sake of Heaven and to teach the Jewish people. This is what Rabbi Akiva did, as the Gemara tells us: “The evil [Roman] government once issued a decree forbidding Jews from learning and practicing Torah. Pappus ben Yehudah came and found Rabbi Akiva publicly gathering people together and teaching them Torah. He said to him, ‘Akiva, are you not afraid of the government?’ He replied, ‘I will explain this to you with a parable: A fox was once walking alongside a river when it saw fish swarming from one place to another. He said to them: “From what are you fleeing?” They replied, “From the nets cast for us by men.” He said to them, “Would you like to come up on dry land so that you and I can live together, just as my ancestors lived with your ancestors?” They replied, “Are you the one they call the smartest of animals? You are not smart, but foolish. If we are afraid in the element in which we live, how much more in the element in which we would die!” So it is with us. If such is our state when we sit and study Torah – of which it is written, “For it is your life and the length of your days” – how much worse shall it be for us if we neglect it!’ ” (Berachot 61b).

How did Rabbi Akiva reach such a level that he did not fear for his life and studied Torah without any ulterior motives? It is because during his entire life, he waited for an opportunity to fulfill the words “with all your soul.” All that he did was for the sake of Heaven, not for a reward. This is why he did not fear the government or death. He feared only G-d throughout his entire life, not man, and he gave his life in order to sanctify G-d’s Name.


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